12 Ways to Make Thanksgiving Dinner Healthier (That No One Will Notice)
These simple swaps make for a decadent meal that won’t leave you feeling like an overstuffed turkey.
The holidays have a way of throwing even the most dedicated health enthusiast off their game. Not this year! All month long, follow along as SilverSneakers LIVE trainer Shannon Thigpen unwraps our best tips for staying healthy, happy, and, yes, even calm during this busy time of year. Check in here and on our Facebook page for new activities to try. Here’s to your healthiest, happiest holiday season ever!
Food and family are two of life’s greatest pleasures. But for some of us, Thanksgiving can be too much of a good thing on both fronts.
You may not be able to contain your outspoken cousin, but you can control what goes on the table. Every dish should bring you joy, not stress or guilt. After all, a feast like this comes along only once per year.
To maximize your satisfaction without feeling overstuffed, we asked registered dietitians for their best ingredient swaps or cooking tips to make classic Thanksgiving dishes a little bit healthier — but just as decadent.
Pick one or two, or try them all. Your company — and you — will never know the difference. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.
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1. Make Sweet Potato Casserole a Little Less Sweet
“For sweet potato casserole, I usually recommend clients pick two sweet mix-ins — marshmallows, sugar, or pineapple — instead of using all three,” says Elizabeth Hurley, R.D.
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, so you can get away with just a few tablespoons of sugar or pineapple in the mash. Start with one tablespoon, then taste add more until you get it just right. If you like marshmallows on top, add a sparse layer of mini marshmallows. Or, top with a spiced pecan and oat strudel for a lower sugar option that adds fiber and healthy fats.
2. Use Fresh Sweet Potatoes Over Canned
“Baked sweet potatoes are already sweet, so all the refined sugar in canned sweet potatoes isn’t necessary,” says Germaine Guy, R.D. “Adding cinnamon is a great way to enhance the flavor of sweet potatoes without extra sugar or calories as well.”
3. Use Whole or Low-Fat Milk Instead of Cream
Dishes like mashed potatoes, casseroles, and pie fillings are already flavorful, and they get some milk fat from butter. You’ll barely notice a difference by swapping out heavy cream for regular milk, Hurley says, but you’ll be cutting the calorie count in half.
4. Skip the Flour in Gravy
Flour is used to thicken traditional turkey gravy, but it doesn’t add a ton of flavor, Guy says.
Instead of shooting for a thick gravy that runs the risk of turning gummy as it sits, cook down reduced-sodium chicken or turkey stock for a flavorful sauce. Simply let homemade or store-bought stock simmer on your stove to half its original volume. Use the concentrated stock the same way you’d use gravy.
5. Add Greek Yogurt to Increase the Protein in Mashed Potatoes
Substitute Greek yogurt for some of the butter and milk in mashed potatoes, suggests Lauren Minchen, M.P.H., R.D.N. “This way, they’re still creamy and thick, but contain more healthy protein,” she says. “Plus, Greek yogurt adds a bit of a tang, which provides a welcome contrast to all the meaty, buttery dishes on your plate.”
You don’t need to worry about exact measurements in a dish like mashed potatoes — swap as much or as little as you want — but for any baked goods, the general rule is to use ½ cup of Greek yogurt for every cup of butter required.
6. Halve the Butter in Every Recipe
Many Thanksgiving recipes go overboard with butter. You can usually cut back without noticing much of a difference in the finished dish.
“This can be done easily in mashed potatoes, casseroles, and gravy,” Hurley says.
Try starting with half as much butter. Taste as you go and add more if needed. You can also put butter on the dinner table so guests have the option of adding more if that’s their preference.
Another way to trim the fat in your baked dishes? Coat the pans with a thin layer of cooking spray instead of butter.
7. Try Applesauce Instead of Cranberry Sauce
To cut back on added sugar, Minchen tops her turkey with no-sugar-added applesauce instead of canned cranberry sauce. “It adds some moisture and sweetness, but isn’t cloying,” she says.
If you can’t go without cranberries, another option is to make cranberry sauce from scratch, adding orange juice and orange zest for flavor and sweetness, plus just a little bit of honey.
8. Skip Sausage in Stuffing and Flavor with Herbs Instead
The combination of bread, butter, and rich stock means stuffing tastes amazing, no matter what. There’s no need to add sausage or other meat fillings, says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N.
Instead, “punch up the flavor with herbal goodness,” she suggests. “Along with dried sage or poultry seasoning, add fresh chopped Italian parsley, fresh sage, and some fresh thyme or rosemary.” And opt for wheat bread over white for a boost of fiber.
9. Season Without Salt
“There is a lot of sodium at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, and too much can lead to bloating and retaining water — both of which can make us uncomfortable,” says Amanda Baker Lemein, R.D.
Her advice is to double down on fresh and dried herbs in every dish, and go light on the salt. Not sure which spices pair well together? Check out our guide to adding serious flavor without adding salt.
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Also, taste dishes before adding salt, and add just a little bit at a time to avoid overdoing it.
Finally, keep plenty of water on the table, since that can help lessen the effects of excess sodium. And be sure to review these eight simple ways to prevent or relieve belly bloating before your feast.
10. Make This Simple Salad That People Will Actually Want to Eat
“Most of your dishes will be savory and likely very filling, not to mention delicious,” says Dezi Abeyta, R.D.N. “Why not add more greens to your table with something like a sweet, tangy spinach salad?”
Fiber from the fruits and vegetables will help fill you up and keep your digestion on track, Abeyta says. His suggestion: Toss the following ingredients together for a salad that’s gorgeous, crunchy, and the perfect complement to all the rich foods available:
- 8 ounces baby spinach
- 2 Fuji or honeycrisp apples, thinly sliced
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
- ⅓ cup goat cheese
- A few tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette
This simple recipe makes three or four side salads, but you can easily double or triple it to serve more people.
Recommended reading: 12 Easy Ways to Make Salad Taste Amazing — Seriously
11. Boost Fiber with Warm, Whole Grain Rolls
An easy way to add fiber to the meal without sacrificing anything is by serving whole grain dinner rolls instead of white rolls, Minchen says. For best results, look for par-baked rolls — rolls that have been mostly cooked and then frozen — in the frozen food section. You’ll just need tothen finish them off for a few minutes in your oven. And your party will be impressed by “freshly baked” bread!
12. Serve Pies with a Single Crust — No Top Layer
When it comes to holiday pie, pumpkin is a great bet. It delivers hefty doses of vitamins A, C, and E, and the pumpkin filling is lower in calories than other classics like pecan or chocolate pie, Newgent says. But whichever filling you choose, she recommends using only one crust—so no layer of crust on top to cover your filling. It’s an easy way to cut carbs and calories without sacrificing the delicious filling.
Also, “since guests may not have room for a big dessert after a big meal anyway, slice the pie into smaller wedges — think 12 wedges instead of eight or 10 for a whole pie,” she says. If you’re craving more, you can always go for a second small slice, and maybe even try a different flavor.
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